Swift won for her song "Love Story" - the night before she contends for entertainer of the year at the Country Music Association Awards - Bobby Pinson won songwriter of the year and Sony/ATV Music was named publisher of the year.
BMI also honored Brooks & Dunn with the president's award.
"I just want to say to every songwriter and every loved one of a songwriter, thank you, because you are the reason I wanted to try Nashville," Swift said. "You are all my heroes."
It was Kristofferson, the 73-year-old songwriter of classics like "Sunday Mornin' Come Down" and "Me and Bobby McGee," though, and not the 19-year-old pop sensation Swift who had the audience's attention.
Willie Nelson, Patty Griffin and Vince Gill paid tribute to Kristofferson, who cried during Griffin's rendition of "Help Me Make it Through the Night."
"There's no better songwriter alive than Kris Kristofferson," Nelson said. "Everything he writes is a standard and we're all just going to have to live with that."
Kristofferson admitted to being overwhelmed by the attention.
"You want the honest truth?" Kristofferson asked with a wry smile. "I'm very honored, but I'm really uncomfortable with everybody saying something praiseworthy and I feel stupid. I told Willie this is going to be really hard on me. He said, 'That's why I'm going like it so much, because you're going to hate it.' But I'm awfully grateful that what I love to do means enough to other people that I'm able to do it."
Ray Stevens was among the first to take a chance on a Kristofferson song, recording "Sunday Mornin' Come Down" a year before Johnny Cash turned it into a hit.
"Nobody had ever put that much money and effort into recording one of my songs," Kristofferson said. "I remember the first time I heard it - he's a wonderful singer - I had to leave the publishing house and I just sat on the steps and wept because it was such a beautiful thing."
Stevens was drawn to the song because he felt Kristofferson had a "spark."
"He was very talented, very smart and right on time with his style," Stevens said. "A lot of people since then have copied those songs that he put out so at this point in time it doesn't seem all that different. It still is of course. There are very few writers who get that spark at the right time."
Pinson is one of Nashville's hottest songwriters with four songs among the most performed in the last year. He co-wrote No. 1 hits "All I Want to Do" and "Already Gone" with Sugarland and also worked with Toby Keith on "She Never Cried in Front of Me" and Josh Gracin on "We Weren't Crazy."
BMI, or Broadcast Music Inc., is a performing rights organization.